Building capacity to help Africa trade better

SADC’s integration agenda – where is the discourse at member state level?


SADC’s integration agenda – where is the discourse at member state level?

Professor Colin McCarthy, tralac Associate, comments on the need for enhanced public discourse on SADC affairs

In two recent Hot Seat Comments (see ‘Why clarity about SADC law has become an urgent matter’ and ‘Why Article 3 of the SADC Trade Protocol needs to be fixed’), Gerhard Erasmus focused attention on a fundamental truth – to be fully effective a regional integration arrangement (RIA) must manage its affairs in full accordance with its acquis, and that for SADC this condition does not apply. By its very nature a RIA is rules-based and can only function effectively if the rules are consistently observed and formal mechanisms exist and are used to settle disputes. In this respect a RIA is not unlike a game of sport. Imagine a soccer match where rules do not apply or is played in the absence of referees that have to adjudicate on the observance of the rules of the game. Chaos will result and the game shall effectively come to nothing.

The question is: why does this condition not apply in SADC? Having recently spent, like before, an extended period in the UK and observing the public discourse on the EU, comparisons become inevitable. This has made me aware of an important difference between the EU, regarded by many as a model of regional integration, and SADC, which at least in part can explain why there is such a large difference between the two RIAs in managing a rules-based system.

The EU, and its predecessors in the process of deeper integration, were and remain a topic of wide-spread public interest. In the UK, like in other EU member states such as France and Germany, sharp differences exist in perceptions of the pros and cons of EU membership. In the UK the prime minister has even committed the country to a future referendum on continued membership. Hardly a day goes by without some EU issue or development being reported and commented on in the media. In talking to people from all spheres of society one also quickly becomes aware that everyone has a view on the EU, based on what they have read or heard or, most importantly, on the perceived impact of rules applied by Brussels. Often the arguments are poorly informed, for example, a neighbour telling me with great confidence that the UK only pays Brussels a lot of money without getting anything in return. Views may also be informed by practical experiences of the impact of EU rules. In the village where we lived in 1979/80, a perfectly good butcher had to close his business because the size of the market did not justify him going to the expense of meeting the hygiene requirements that apply in the EU.

Whether perceived as acceptable or unacceptable, the fact is that rules must exist for the orderly management of the EU. National governments and the public they serve must observe the rules and governments must consider their constituents, which by and large are relatively well informed, in adopting policy positions required by their EU membership.

In South Africa, and I have no reason to believe that it differs in other member states, SADC hardly features in the psyche of society as reflected in the low priority given to SADC in the public discourse, including discussion within the business community. One could argue that this lack of attention can be ascribed to the fact that SADC is only an FTA, the lowest rung on the ladder of regional integration.

But even in an FTA important issues may exist that demand critical consideration by citizens. An example is the unilateral application by member states of measures such as levies and surtaxes on imports from other member states which contravenes the basic principle and rule of intra-regional free trade that defines the very nature of SADC as an FTA. But more important was the suspension in 2010 of the SADC Tribunal following its courageous and legally sound ruling on Zimbabwe’s transgression of human rights. These developments were reported on in the media but a broad-based and in-depth public discussion remain absent, and I would venture that if a poll was to be conducted to measure the public awareness of these issues, the result will show extremely low levels of awareness at all levels of society.

The important question that remains concerns the causal link between public awareness and critical discourse on SADC affairs on the one hand and the lack of consistency in having the rules-based management of SADC affairs on the other. The point of departure is the obvious condition: for a RIA to be successful, member states must be firmly committed to the agreement that established the arrangement and its implementation, which means the management of regional affairs in accordance with the rules embodied in the agreement. In SADC this condition is not met and the reasons for this may be varied and complex, but it is difficult to deny that public apathy on SADC affairs is an important consideration.

Good democratic governance must recognise the views of the public on critical issues and in the context of regional integration this requires critical awareness in member states of the RIA, its rules, and their implementation. In SADC member states, public views on SADC affairs should be aired rigorously in the media and through other means that can serve as conduits to the government. It is especially important that organised business and labour as well as NGOs that have an interest in trade relations be actively involved in monitoring the management of SADC. To the extent that SADC is not an important item on the agenda of public discourse, the commitment of member state governments to the FTA will be weak.

Observing the rules of a RIA is not always popular, often because long term benefits are overshadowed by short term costs; the experience of EU members makes this abundantly clear. If under these circumstances the weight of broad opinion, as revealed in the public discourse, falls decidedly on the negative impact of observing certain rules, membership eventually has to be terminated or suspended. Surely, ignoring rules that govern intra-regional trade cannot be an option; nor should it be possible in a rules-based system for individual member states to unilaterally and selectively decide on the non-observance of rules. Also, as a RIA that does not fully respect the rules that govern intra-regional trade, SADC neither is ready to travel further on the route of deeper integration nor adequately prepared for the tripartite integration with COMESA and the EAC.

Finally, regional integration and its impact on trade flows result in losers and winners and often the pain of the losers is the immediate cause of unilateral and selective intervention that obstructs the free flow of goods. It requires strong and brave political leadership to govern with the longer term benefits of integration in mind. Leadership of this kind in democratic societies will depend on an informed public, constituents that are acquainted with SADC and its operations.

How can public awareness of SADC be raised? Answers to this difficult question will require lateral thinking and can be the topic for feature Hot Seat Comments.



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